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The Scrivener: The Smallest Room

Brian Barratt takes a historical, if restricted, meander around The Room To Which We All Must Go.

For more delightful literary effusions from Brianís well-stocked mind please do click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. Visit also his stimulating Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

In the 1940s, my dad called it the WC. He shortened that to W. Some folk call it the bathroom, but they donít bathe in it. If itís out of doors in Australia, itís a dunny. If itís indoors, itís a toot (pronounced Ďtuttí). You may or may not call it the toilet, depending on where you live.

Bathroom arises from the same idea as lavatory, which comes from 14th century lavatorium, a vessel for washing. During the 17th century, that came to denote a room not only for washing but also for urinating and defecating. It was not until the 20th century that lavatory was used specifically to denote the water-flushed vessel into which one performed oneís private functions

Private functions are best performed in a private place. Hence the word privy.

WC stands for water closet. The term first appeared in print around the 1750s, although water closets of different kinds had been known for much longer.

In the 1300s, closet meant a study or small room. By the 15th century, it also denoted a privy. Another term was closet of ease, which is as euphemistic as rest room and comfort station. The use for closet to mean a cupboard or wardrobe did not emerge until the 17th century.

Our WC was part of a house built in 1912 at Newark-on-Trent, England. The lavatory was part of the building, under the same roof, but it had its own outside door. You had to go out of the back door of the house, down the path, and into the lavatory from the outside. Not very nice in the snowy depths of a freezing winter night. The bathroom was inside the house, upstairs. An aunt in an older house had an outside bathroom. Another aunt's house had an outside WC but no bathroom. Oh, those were the days!

Bathroom, the term preferred in the USA, originally meant exactly what it says. An American translation of the Bible refers to someone going into a cave to go to the bathroom. Visions of brass taps, scented soap and toilet paper in a rocky cave in the desert!

Dunny is related to British dialect dunnakin, dunnekin, from 19th century danna, dung, with ken, private room. It might be an Australianism, but it possibly has its roots in Lincolnshire.

In central Africa fifty years ago, we called it the PK, picanniny kia, little house. Like the dunny, the less-than-magnificent edifice down the garden had a wooden seat over a stinking bucket. Night-soil workers took away the buckets at night, replacing them with clean ones. (Clean? I wonder.)

Loo is a fairly new euphemism. Argument continues about how it originated. Some say that it from the French lieux d'asaince, water closet. Another version is that it originated in the 18th or 19th century when women were emptying the night-soil from chamber-pots into the street below, and would call out, Gardez l'eau! 'Look out for the water!'

A further explanation comes from the habit of ladies in carrying a bordalou, a small portable pissoir, within the confines of their muffs. To modern ears, that certainly sounds rather potty.

Toilet comes from16th century French toilette meaning cloth, wrapper, dress. It is a diminutive of toil or toile, a piece of cloth, linen, canvas. Its original meaning in English was a piece of cloth used for wrapping clothes. In the 17th century in came to mean both clothing and items required for dressing, arranging the hair and make-up, and the bag they were kept in. Toilet does not seem to have been used as a euphemism for lavatory until the 20th century.

Toilet is a good example of a word that has completely changed in meaning and usage during its life in English. It's strange that it is considered to be an impolite word in some countries.

I reckon The House of Lords is a more dignified term. It denotes that place wherein there are lengthy sittings during which a fair amount of crap is produced.

From closet to cupboard to cabinet ó perhaps something similar might be said of French politicians when they go to le cabinet with lots of paper.

Anyway, to avoid misunderstanding when in the company of polite strangers, ask for 'The Room To Which We All Must Eventually Go'. You canít go wrong.

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt


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